Day 1 - Beijing
Nimen Hao! Welcome to Beijing - the capital of the most populous country on earth. China's capital is quickly shedding its historical face in favour of modernity, however there are still plenty of places that give an insight into the nation's ancient past, as well as sights that showcase China's contemporary culture. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 6pm today, where your insurance and next of kin details will be collected. Please look for a note in the hotel lobby or ask the hotel reception where the meeting will take place – if you're going to be late, please inform the hotel reception. Any free time today in Beijing is taken at your leisure, so get out and start exploring this vast and amazing city. It's recommended that you arrive a few days early to experience all that Beijing has to offer. Beijing's food is a highlight, from the famous Beijing Roast Duck to dumplings in a tiny backstreet eatery, there’s no chance you’ll go hungry here!
Day 2 - Xi'an
Catch the bullet train to Xi'an (approximately 5-6 hours). Once the imperial centre of China for 2,000 years, Xian is now a vibrant, modern city dotted with many interesting historical sites to explore. Enjoy a walking tour of the Muslim Quarter of Xi'an with your group. After the walking tour, why not visit the Great Mosque, one of the most important in China. This area has plenty of interesting shops, lively street stalls and roving groups of white-bearded men in skull caps. This evening enjoy some free time to uncover what was once the start of the ancient trading route of the Silk Road.
Day 3 - Xi'an
Enjoy a free day to explore Xi'an at your leisure. Perhaps hire a bike and ride along the city walls, which are the most complete in China, or climb to the top of the Bell and Drum towers for impressive views. Perhaps visit the impressive Tang Dynasty Small or Big Wild Goose Pagodas. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is in a scenic area which also includes the Shaanxi History Museum and Da Cien Temple. It's very popular with locals, especially in the evenings when there is a nightly light and music show around the many fountains. The Small Wild Goose Pagoda is inside the Jianfu Temple and Xi'an Museum is also nearby.
Day 4 - Xi'an/Overnight Train
Today starts with a short drive to the lesser-known Hanyangling Mausoleum with a local guide. This is a Han dynasty tomb of Emperor Jingdi, a burial site that’s more authentic and less crowded than the Teracotta Warriors. Dating from 153 BC, the tomb’s a magnificent cultural relic, comprising of tens of thousands of buried pottery figures, the emperor’s tomb, empress’ tomb, burial pits, a ceremonial site, a human sacrifice graveyard and a criminals’ cemetery. You will head underground and walk through the pits, which have glass floors and walls that enable you to see the on-going excavations up close. In the evening the group boards the first overnight train to Zhangye.
Day 5 - Zhangye
Disembark after an overnight train ride to Zhangye, arriving at around midday. Check into your hotel and take an orientation walk with the group leader around this leafy town of temples and parks. The city was established 1,000 years ago as the headquarters of General Huo when he controlled the ‘Hexi Corridor’. Controlling this area meant controlling the lucrative Silk Road, as the corridor is one of the few ways through the Qilian Mountains to the north and the desert and peaks to the south. Zhangye is home to China’s largest reclining Buddha, which would have been visited by Marco Polo in the 13th century while he waited for permission from Kubilau Khan to continue on to the Mongolian capital. Relax with free time for the rest of the afternoon and evening as you prepare yourself for some truly spectacular scenery tomorrow.
Day 6 - Zhangye
Today pack your sunscreen, hat and water as you head to see the unreal landscapes of Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park, where it looks like millions of coloured paint pots have been spilled across the mountains. This 400-square-kilometer World Heritage site was formed over 24 million - 100 million years ago. The area was originally a lake fed by rivers, which brought many layers of sand and mineral deposits. When the lake dried up the mineral elements oxidised, giving the lake its unique colour palette. The elements then eroded the lake into mountainous shapes and unusual formations. The result looks like an oil painting, with colours ranging from pink and orange to earthy brown. The scale of the formation and the swirling patterns of rainbow colours are stunning. Take a trek around this grand and magnificent area at sunset, and discover that every angle is a photographers dream.
Day 7 - Jiayuguan
Today there is an option to rise early and return to the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park for an unforgettable sunrise over the hills. Later at midday the group will catch a day train to Jiayuguan (approximately 1.5-2 hours). Jiayuguan was the last outpost on the edge of the ancient Han Chinese Empire, the last Chinese-controlled stop for travellers and traders before they passed into the uncertain and dangerous deserts beyond. While exploring the city you might notice the growing Muslim influence as we travel further west.
Day 8 - Jiayuguan/Dunhuang
Today explore Jiayuguan Fort and a remote section of the Great Wall, which you will either visit today before heading to Dunhuang. The Ming dynasty built a series of forts and towers in Jiayuguan to secure their hold over the area and Jiayuguan Fort, though restored, still offers a feeling of desolation as you look out into the desert from atop its walls. Here we visit a section of the Jiayuguan Pass, which is the western end of the Great Wall built during the Ming Dynasty. Travel to Dunhuang in the afternoon, which is about five hours drive.
Day 9 - Dunhuang
This morning the group can decide if they want to drive out of the city and watch the sun rise over the nearby dunes at Crescent Lake. The oasis, which take the shape of a crescent moon, is believed to have existed for around 2,000 years and is surrounded by Mingsha Shan (Singing Sand Dunes). Today you will also visit the nearby Mogao Caves, which house some of the most stunning Buddhist murals in the world, and are perhaps the greatest store of Buddhist art in the world. The first cave was carved out and painted in 366 AD after a Buddhist monk, passing through on the Silk Road, had a vision of a thousand Buddha faces appearing on the cliff. The caves were largely forgotten until a Taoist monk stumbled upon them in 1907. Currently there are more than 492 caves, most containing murals, manuscripts, and over 2,415 coloured statues. Return to your hotel in Dunhuang for the night and perhaps enjoy a drink at the unique beer gardens off the nearby night market.
Day 10 - Turpan
Travel by private bus this morning to Liuyuan train station and board a day train to Turpan (approximately 3.5 hours). A transfer will be waiting in Turpan to take you to the hotel. Once an important staging post on the Silk Road, Turpan is an attractive oasis town famous for its vineyards, stone fruits, melons and the nearby Flaming Mountains. The Turpan Depression is second only to the Dead Sea in Jordan as the lowest point on earth. It's a small city by Chinese standards, but the surrounding area is full of interesting places. The country roads on the outskirts are lined with poplars and the lovely old mud brick dwellings of the Uyghur people, while the modern ‘inner’ town has shiny new buildings, spacious streets and public squares.
Day 11 - Turpan
Explore Turpan with your local guide. Visit the ruins of the once great Silk Road city of Jiaohe, one of Xinjiang’s best historical sites and one of the most rewarding to visit. Bring plenty of water and sunscreen with you as things will be heating up! During free time this afternoon, choose to join the locals socialising in the square, or visit the market tonight for all the flavours of the region and plenty of interaction.
Day 12 - Turpan/Overnight Train
Take the last train journey to Kashgar, which departs between 11am and 1pm (approximately 24 hours). See mirages in the Turpan basin, then climb through a high mountain pass, switch-backing up the peak of the Tian Shan Mountains. By morning you will have descended down the other side into the Tarim basin, skirting the northern edge of the sandy Taklamakan desert, passing isolated communities eking out a living in a harsh environment.
Day 13 - Kashgar
Arrive into Kashgar around midday today. Kashgar is very much a frontier town, quickly developing to take advantage of its geographical location right in the heart of Central Asia. There are few signs that you are still in China, other than the country's largest Chairman Mao statue, that is. This once ancient city is quickly modernising – in 2011 the Chinese government started rapid demolishing the Old Town due to it being overcrowded. It’s hard to predict what will be left in this area in the coming years. The town's main landmark is the Id Kah Mosque and its surrounding square. The dusty old laneways are crammed full of shops, food stalls and Uyghur locals living a lifestyle virtually unchanged for a hundred years. Take advantage of the proximity to Pakistan by having a meal of curry and chapattis at a Pakistani café or play a round or two with the lads hanging out at the pool tables on Id Kah Square. Alternatively, you can get lost meandering down lanes and alleyways, stopping at stalls selling tandoori-baked bagels or mulberry juice.
Day 14 - Kashgar
Kashgar's main attraction is undoubtedly the Sunday Bazaar, which you’ll visit today. It’s said to be the biggest market in Asia, and on its main day it can feel like everyone from hundreds of miles around has converged on the city. It’s alive with traders selling all kinds of wares – rugs, hats, spices, boots, dates, ingredients for traditional medicines, auto parts, you name it. The Bazaar is divided into two sections – the Downtown Bazaar, which sells clothing, household goods, produce and everything else you could imagine, and the Animal Bazaar just outside the city. Taking a private van, first travel out to the Animal Bazaar to see the frantic bargaining and bustle of local herdsmen and farmers (watch as they even take donkeys for a 'test drive'). It’s certainly a memorable scene to see every farmer, handler, sheep, cow, camel, horse and donkey from the surrounding villages packed into a small square overflowing with sound and smell. Then return to the city to visit the main bazaar and mingle with the traders and shoppers at your own pace. Perhaps join the locals in Id Kah Square on this free evening.
Day 15 - Torugart Pass/Naryn
Say goodbye to your Chinese leader and group today, and travel onwards with other group members who are completing the Beijing to Tashkent journey.
Depart early morning by private bus for our journey into the seldom-travelled country of Kyrgyzstan, a nation that still embraces nomadic traditions and extends some of the warmest hospitality you'll find anywhere in the world. We'll be travelling for around 11 hours today, including approx 7 hours of driving, plus border formalities (which can require a lot of patience and plenty of waiting).
You will be accompanied by a Chinese Intrepid representative to the border and then meet your new driver and escort on the Kyrgyzstan side who will be with you until we meet the Central Asia group at Song Kul lake tomorrow.
We cross the breathtaking Torugart Pass (3570m) high in the Tian Shan, slated as the most exciting route into Central Asia - take note of the changing landscape between China and Kyrgyzstan - and drive down to Tash Rabat (3500m), a beautifully preserved caravanserai of the 14th century. There is very little public transport in Kyrgyzstan so to make the most of our time here we have a private van for our journeys. It can be a rough ride in places today and often gets quite cold as we ascend higher into the mountains even in mid summer, so make sure you bring some warm clothes!
Drive on to Naryn where we stay in a hotel tonight.
Day 16 - Song-Kol Lake
Travel to Song Kul Lake, one of the largest lakes in the country and meet the rest of our group.
This beautiful alpine lake is considered a sacred place for many Kyrgyz people as well as one of the best summer pastures for nomadic herders. In the middle of the summer, you'll see nomadic herdsmen and their families watching over goats, sheep, and horses. Tonight you will stay in your first yurt camp of the trip. Yurts, made of felt and tarpaulins on a round frame, are the traditional dwellings of the Kyrgyz people. Sleeping arrangements are on a multi-share, mixed-gender basis with mattresses on the floor. It can get very chilly in the evenings, so there's a stove for heating and plenty of blankets. There are no bathroom facilities inside the yurts. Outdoor toilets are to be expected.
Day 17 - Song-Kol Lake
Enjoy a full day of exploring your surroundings or relaxing lakeside. Overnight in yurts again tonight.
Day 18 - Suusamyr Valley/Chychkan Gorge/Toktogul
Suusamyr Valley is one of the more remote and rarely visited regions of Kyrgyzstan. It is a high steppe plateau situated at around 2,200 metres above sea level, and the mountainous, lush surrounding landscape is dotted with yurts. Just when you think the road couldn't possibly climb any higher, you will arrive at your guesthouse for an overnight stay. In the Jalal-Abad Region is Chychkan Gorge. Stop here and soak up the amazing scenery. Surrounded by mountains and rivers flowing below, Chychkan is simply stunning. Spot a wild boar or deer, go for a short hike or pick wild blackberries. With no cities in the vicinity, and the only electricity coming from a nearby hydroelectric dam, the night sky is stunning on a clear night here. Be sure to enjoy some stargazing before you retire for the evening.
Day 19 - Sary Chelek National Park/Arkyt Village
After breakfast, drive to Arkyt Village (approximately 6–7 hours). This UNESCO World Heritage-listed network of nature reserves is located in the Sary-Chelek National Park, about 15 km before Sary-Chelek Lake. The reserve was founded in 1959 to preserve the flora and fauna of the walnut-fruit forests and alpine landscapes. You will make a small detour to drive around a section of the Toktogul Water Reservoir which supplies electricity and water to 90% of the Kyrgyz population. The Toktogul Dam and hydroelectric power station in fact features on the 100 som banknote. Tonight you will stay in a local homestay and enjoy more of that warm Kyrgyzstan hospitality.
Day 20 - Osh
A morning drive (approximately 5 hours from Sary-Chelek Lake) brings you to Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan. Located in the Fergana Valley in the south of the country, Osh is often referred to as the 'capital of the south'. It is is one of the truly ancient Central Asian towns, dating back to the 5th century BC. While you are here, be sure to pay a visit to the Jayma Bazaar, a nice little marketplace where you might pick up an interesting local handicraft. Also pop your head into the famous three-story yurt, or perhaps venture to the Suleiman-Too Mountain which looms over the lovely Fergana Valley.
Day 21 - Tashkent
Travel to Tashkent, Uzbekistan today (approximately 8 hours). Central Asia's largest city is a mix of Russian and Uzbek styles, an indication of the fact that for many years it was a key city of the USSR. Extravagant mosques, both ancient and new, sit alongside modern highways and Soviet monuments.
Day 22 - Tashkent
Explore the city on a full-day guided tour that covers its key sights. You will stroll around the maze of dusty streets with their small mosques and mud brick houses in what's left of Tashkent's Old Town. With free time afterwards, you might like to visit the Applied Arts Museum and see its impressive collection of carpets, ethnic costumes, embroidery and other traditional artefacts of the region. Also worth a look is the Amir Timur (Tamerlane) Museum, which depicts the story of the national hero's life and curiously displays what are claimed to be his actual eyebrows. You might also like to check out Independence Square or, later on, the Opera and Ballet Theatre where there might be an evening performance.
Day 23 - Samarkand
Travel to Samarkand, one of the most attractive Central Asian cities. It's also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Despite a history of war and earthquakes, it retains its striking profile. Keep your camera at the ready, as this destination is a photographer's dream, with colourful domes and minarets gracing the skyline. Enjoy some free time, perhaps strolling around or simply relaxing in preparation of your more in-depth explorations tomorrow. History and art enthusiasts might like to visit the State Museum, near the beautiful Registan.
Day 24 - Samarkand
Join a local guide for an in-depth tour of Samarkand's sights. First you will head to the incredibly extensive Shah I Zindah Mausoleum complex, a holy site for local Muslims, where the Prophet Mohammed's cousin is buried. From there you will walk to the massive Bibi Khanum Mosque, which is no longer functioning but is impressive in its proportions and extravagance. You will cover the short distance to the Guri Amir Mausoleum by taxi to see Amir Timur's final resting place, then finish at the most spectacular spot of all – the Registan.
This public square holds what are probably the most recognisable of all Central Asian monuments. The facades of the two medressas facing the central square are decorated in exquisite mosaics, tiles and intricate geometric brickwork, with lovely domes of soft blue on either side. The interior of some of the buildings are equally impressive. You will visit some of the main rooms, then enjoy some free time to explore on your own.
Day 25 - Shakhrisabz
Travel by private transport to the town of Shakhrisabz (approximately 3 hours). Shakhrisabz is the birthplace of Tamerlane, aka Timur, the legendary 14th-century Persian military leader. While it's not as spectacular as Samarkand in terms of sights, the ruins of the Ak-Saray Palace offer a fascinating window to the past. Written above the entrance is the proud statement, 'If you challenge our power, look at our buildings', which gives you an indication of the palace's stateliness. You can climb to the top of Ak Saray's remaining entrance portal for views of the neatly-laid city that stretches into the distance. Staying in a local guesthouse, you'll have the chance to walk around the shady streets and get a feel for typical Uzbek town life.
Day 26 - Bukhara
Take a private van further to Bukhara (approximately 4 hours), a favourite Silk Road city for many travellers. After you check into your hotel, your leader can give you tips on what to do with your free time today, as your walking tour with the local guide will take place tomorrow. In the evening, perhaps join the locals and other travellers around Lyabi Hauz, a pool of water surrounded by ancient mulberry trees in the Old Town's centre. Here you can have a meal of shashlyk (roasted meat on skewers) with non bread and green tea; head to the charming puppet show in the theatre nearby; or see tradition meet contemporary culture at the nightly fashion show across the plaza.
Day 27 - Bukhara
Enjoy a walking tour with a local guide. You will have plenty of free time while in Bukhara to explore the artisan shops and wander the narrow, twisting streets and alleyways at your leisure. This is one of the best places to pick up some local handmade souvenirs such as embroidered hangings and cloth, silk, carpets, pottery, woodwork, miniature paintings and jewellery. Don't expect it to be cheap, though, as each item takes hours of painstaking labour to create, and many of the merchants are the artists themselves. While you're here you also might like to stop in at the Ark, the old royal fortress that's Bukhara's oldest standing structure. Inside you can find the Zindon jail where spies of the Great Game era were imprisoned. Perhaps get soaked and scrubbed in a traditional hammom (traditional spa).
Day 28 - Tashkent
Take a local train to Tashkent (approximately 6 hours). Arriving late afternoon, the evening is free to spend at your leisure. This is a great chance to do some of the activities you didn't get around to the first time.
Day 29 - Tashkent
There are no activities planned for the final day and you are able to depart the accommodation at any time. Speak to your leader if you need to store any luggage at the hotel.
Accommodation, Food (as stated), Transport, Selected Activities
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